by Samantha Walsh
I would like to thank “Fit is a Feminist Issue” and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest post. This will be my second time guest blogging. You can read my earlier post on wheelchairs, the warrior dash, and inclusion here. I am a fan of the blog so it is fantastic to take part. Recently, I was a model for a life drawing class (Art Model). This is a paid position where you sit for the class to draw or paint you. It is four hours. You hold the pose for fifteen minutes at a time (or more if you can do so). The class I sat for usually draws models of whom are able bodied and the model is naked. The experience of art modeling required that I become okay (but ideally comfortable) with my own body. My blog will be mediation on my body and body image related discourse.
To begin, here is some information about myself: I am 31 years old and I work in a post-secondary institution. I am doctoral candidate in Sociology. I also have a condition called cerebral palsy and it effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around. I have only been an average weight according to the BMI index once in my life and it was for two years in high school. I weight trained every day, played wheelchair basketball 3-4 times a week and my mother worked for a weight loss company. Everything in our house was portion controlled. I was 5’5 and 130lbs. Since then, my weight has fluctuated. I have quit basketball but continued to have periods in my life where I am incredibly active and then others where I am inactive. I have always had a tenuous relationship with my body. I learned very early that my body was in need of repair. Much of my time between the ages of infancy to ten were taken up by visits to physical therapist, doctors and specialist who have endeavored into attempts to cure me or make me walk. My mom eventually, in a bold move, decided that functionality was far more necessary than walking. She allowed me to get a wheelchair, put me in adapted sports and installed ramps in our house. Walking was associated with fitness and stretching; wheeling was associated with movement, play and function. My wheelchair is the best thing that my mother has ever given to me. The fact that she got me a wheelchair in face of conventional wisdom suggesting that her soul goal should be that I walk, while folks were saying “if you put your kid in a wheelchair she will never get out” speaks to my mom’s convection and depth of character. The fact is I would have never walked, or I would have walked in a way that would have been limiting (if you walk and like it good for you). The body may crave movement, but not everybody craves the same movement. In the same way some of us are runners and some are not; some of us are swimmers and some are not; some of us are walkers and some are not- I am not a walker.
I struggle (sometimes) not being a walker in a world that is designed for folks who walk. I am the unexpected body most of the time. However, I struggle more (if we can quantify struggle) with conventional beauty. As I said before I have been overweight according to the BMI index most of my life, I would not consider myself one to have conventional beauty. I could list many things I wish I could change. In the same way that my mom tried in earnest for the first part of my life to make me walk because that’s what society said was important. I have spent my whole life trying to make myself beautiful. Not spiritually beautifuland not beautiful to friends and family, but the type of beautiful, that sells cars: that manufactured beautiful that makes us by spandex underwear and teeth whitener.
How Did I Decide to do Art Modeling:
The literal story of how I became an art model is pretty basic but for context, here it is. I have a friend who does it and she said it was a good part time job. She gave me some contacts and I started cold calling. I booked a session with an art studio of which did not require a portfolio and was interested in diverse models. The director and I discussed poses I could do and we settled on something. That is physically how I became an art model.
How I intellectually became an art model is a very different story. I have recently had a paradigm shift in how I think about my own body and the standard I hold myself to. I have always thought of my body as the unfortunate container of my personality. However, in the past ten years this perception has shifted quite a bit. Having the privilege to study Sociology has given me amply time to consider and reflect on the notion of beauty. Furthermore, because of this I have come to understand my body as a tool rather than a site of work. My body lets me do all kinds of interesting things from a “warrior dash” to sex (sorry mom). This shift in thinking has been mediated by many things. For one, I had very skilled trainer who taught me about challenging the body for the sake of the challenge rather than as punishment. In addition, a friend of mine became a weight lifting instructor, and her passion and love of her own body was truly infectious. I was also a part of a cross-fit style gym with a focus on movement called StrengthBox for a year. My involvement in the StrengthBox community was incredibly transformative it changed my body and further solidified the idea of the body as a tool for entertainment and joy. There were all kinds of folks there and no one seemed particularly concerned about who was beautiful and who was not. Everyone was there for their own sake and the sake of movement. A recent unrelated injury has caused me to change my fitness routine but, the experience was truly transformative. I am not completely unburdened by social pressure to conform, but rather I seek spaces of like minded folks and opportunities that challenge me. I want to use my body in the immediate rather than wait for when it’s perfect because, just like walking, “perfect” (or that abstract concept that is) may never happen for me. Art modeling seemed like a novel experience that would certainly force me to appreciate my body or at least use it.
I had originally wanted to start my Art Modeling in the summer during the peak of my StrengthBox days and when I had a tan. However, I ended up doing it in January post injury, while my body was showing signs of injury, recovery, rest and a lack of motion. While I was not thrilled about the timing, I am pleased that I did it because it was truly a chance to live my new paradigm. I was not working on my body-my body was ready, as it has always been. It just took me quite some time to notice.
Art Modeling: the Day of…
Decorum dictates you show up at least fifteen minutes before the class. You “set the pose”: this means with your clothes on you hold the pose. While you are in the pose, someone tapes marks on the stage so you know exactly where to sit. This is also the time when lighting is staged and the artist has decided where they will sit. You then go to the washroom to take off your clothes and then you come back in a bath robe or in my case, a little sundress. You get into the pose again, and then take your cover off. However, in my case the class all decided they liked the sundress I was wearing as a cover so they would paint me in that rather than naked. One of the first things I noticed was how symbiotic the relationship between the painters and the model was. Several of the painters there said the room was too cold for the model to be naked, and so a heater was turned on. The art director set the tone and everyone knew my name and that it was my first time. Everyone addressed me by name. I had control over how long I would sit. Artists were able to comment on my pose, but I had the final say or a compromise would be reached. My imagination had been that I would have little control or voice in the situation. The overall explanation to this is that if the model is unhappy or uncomfortable it becomes harder to paint them. This was fantastically empowering because everyone thanked me for my time and said positive non-creepy things. For example they would say things like:“you sit very still”, “you are fun to paint” and “your eyes change colour”. As an aside it is actually frowned upon to objectify or say things that make the model uncomfortable. I thought about a saying I heard once about the safety of women: that theoretically “a woman should be able to walk down the street, drunk, and naked and/or alone and still be totally safe”. In life drawing class you are naked (or in a little dress) and alone (you could theoretically be drunk I suppose if you kept it to yourself but, this is not something I would try) but, you are totally safe and it feels that way.
Second, I also noticed that no one said anything about me being disabled or assumed that I was anything else but the model. I don’t know if they were just being polite, but everyone agreed I was the model and they would be painting me. I think this is another example of how access is created through relationships. While the physical space was accessible, the class had to accept me as their model, and further to this the art director who hired me had to be okay with the fact that the pose I would do would ultimately be the one my body allowed. I was worried I would be second rate to a standing model that this would be an experiment but it was not. A good model is someone who likes themselves (at least a little) and can sit for a long time.
Third, I assumed that the hardest part would be being naked. The hardest part was sitting still and letting all of me either painfully fills with lactic acid or fall asleep due to lack of circulation. Being disabled was an asset because in four hours I only got up twice (during the breaks I just stretched on the stage) and I can’t lift my legs easily, so they sat still. The pose I was doing put all the weight through my arm. Most people cannot hold the pose I was in but, even with the recent injury my shoulders are still over developed. Apparently I was fun to draw because I seemed just as interested in being painted as they were to paint me. Everyone said a lot of positive things. I didn’t smile though because I was physically uncomfortable for a lot of it- it took a lot of endurance.. I assume that this is why there are so many paintings of women who look horribly sad.
Can I Take a Picture of Your Picture of Me?
Another interesting nuance was the notion that I was being stared at but, with purpose and intent. It was one of the only times in my life that I have known people were staring at me and not been intensely annoyed. I am used to folks staring because I am disabled. But in this situation, everyone was staring at me because that was the point. It also became interesting because, the artists had to ask to take photos of me– they do this so they can work on the painting later, and I could say yes or no. I myself also had to ask if I could capture photos of their work, because I wanted these images to use as a portfolio. There is share vulnerability when the act of exchanging images is mediated through consent. This was so powerful for me because, often as a person with a disability I don’t get to control who stares and who does not. It was also interesting to be the person staring at something, in this case an individual’s artistic creation, and how that could make someone feel vulnerable.
Art Modeling From Job to Body Based Meditation
Overall, the opportunity to art model has served as an occasion to think about my body, and the interplay I live between expectations and reality. It has not solved all of my body image worries but, it has softened them. In art modeling my body is not the unfortunate container for my personality, but rather my body is interesting, valuable and useful.